Fuck Waterdeep. I’m going to Vornheim

Last Spring, when the Pandemic hit, I dove headfirst into the #osr scene because I discovered a little retro-clone called Lamentations of the Flame Princess. And, Dear Reader, if you’ve been following this blog, you know how much I love this saucy flame-haired princess. One of the first modules/supplements I read was Vornheim by Zak S. It was one of the first publications that opened my eyes to what the OSR has to offer: complete creative freedom for the Game Master. As a creator, Zak S has an innate and seemingly organic understanding of this and it comes out in his work. It seems to come naturally to him. I think it helps that he is an artist first, game designer second.

Now that 18 months have gone by in my (re)exploration of the Old School Rennaissance, I thought I would revisit Vornheim in more detail because this publication, in my humble opinion, is one that represents what the OSR can do and it is an excellent example of Zak S’s work.

As an aside, if you care, Dear Reader, Vornheim won some awards back in 2011 and 2012 by people who make awards for things.

Vornheim is labeled as a “city kit” and that is exactly what it is. However, it is also a doorway into a potential setting for your game. The main thing that struck me is that, like a lot of LotfP publications, is that the author immediately challenges some assumptions within the gaming community. I remember picking up the Waterdeep City System back in the 90s. It was a box set with 11 huge maps: 1 was for Castle Waterdeep, the other 10 was for Waterdeep. When folded out completely you had a giant map approximately 6 feet long by 4 feet wide.

That’s perfect for a game of Warhammer 40k; it is completely useless as a GM tool. In fact, the only thing I found useful from that box set was a pickpocket success generator linked to each Ward of Waterdeep. The pickpocket table provided you with a bit of immersion as what you found in a Castle Ward pocket is not likely to be found in the Docks Ward. Other than that, Waterdeep’s City System was not at all helpful.

In contrast, Vornheim says you don’t need maps like that at all. This is theater of the mind after all, right? If you absolutely need to map out a neighborhood, Vornheim provides some really interesting methods of doing that just by rolling some dice on a piece of paper and drawing a few lines. Similarly, if you need a floor plan, he provides you with a basic means of doing so just by rolling dice. Otherwise, why bother with a map that is likely to consist of just a bunch of squares squished together?

In a similar vein, Vornheim provides the Game Master with some ideas on how to randomly generate towers and buildings without having to do too much leg work prior to the game session. Indeed, the techniques provided can be done in game. In fact, if you are interested incorporating some player facing during your game sessions, you can probably have your players do the rolling to generate the buildings.

The idea behind this, of course, is that normal buildings found in a city (or village, or keep) are not going to be of some weird crazy design. They are basic structures that do not need to be mapped out in any detail until necessary. Even then, such building layouts aren’t too terribly complex. (Unless, of course, the homeowners are weird and crazy, in which case you probably have an adventure site…and if so, put down Vornheim, and start designing your damned adventure site!)

Vornheim is also chocked full of random tables that may prove useful for a GM: Do you need an aristocrat? There is a table for it. Do you need to know what book a player picked up? He’s got a table for that. There are also tables and diagrams to map out the relationships between NPCs should you need it. And, as is always the case with a Zak S. publication, he provides you with my favorite chart of all, an “I loot the body” chart. These are great as he tailors these to the environment and setting, which adds a level of immersion when playing D&D, which is the same reason why I liked those pickpocket tables from the Waterdeep box set.

The most innovative aspect of this book is that the front and back covers of the book contain a graphic that allows you to instantly generate NPCs, encounters, as well as attack/damage rolls with the use of a single 4-sided die. These charts consist of a series of numbers that encircles each edge of the book. You then drop a d4 onto the book and consult where the points of the d4 direct you. This gives you hit dice, adversary counts, attack rolls, and damage. I have not used this yet but I intend to try it out as soon as I can. I like mechanics that speed things up at the table.

Again, another wonderful example of how Zak S. and Lamentations of the Flame Princess toss many RPG game design assumptions out the window.

I don’t want you to think that Vornheim is just a bunch of random tables, tips and tricks for running an urban crawl or city campaign. It’s not. There are three adventure sites included, as well as background for the city of Vornheim itself. As is typical with Zak S., the descriptions are more poetic than concrete. His use of imagery (coupled with his artwork) titillates the imagination and invokes a dark and snow swept city scape of twisted towers, jagged metal, and weird encounters. He provides you with enough to get a feel for what the city is about without telling you how that should be interpreted and how you should run your campaign in Vornheim. You paid for the book (or pdf) afterall.

I find this to be one of the subtle strengths of this book. I don’t want to be told how to think about a location. I want to be free to make it my own when I play. When I read Waterdeep: Dragonheist it felt contrived, silly, and it certainly set expectations for those gathering at the table for my Waterdeep campaign as to what is canon and what is not. I really did not feel like I had a whole lot of say in how Waterdeep ought to be presented. Not so with Vornheim. It is a dark place, sure. But how that darkness is described, if at all, is up to you, the Game Master.

Certainly, you could argue that I did not have to present the material in Dragonheist as presented. However, I am a family man with a full-time job. Sometimes I just do not have time to rework something I picked up. Which is another strength of Vornheim: all of the tips, tricks, and tables provided allow you to do what you need to do, on the fly, at the gaming table. It is a truly remarkable book.

Each of the adventure sites (there are three) provide the game master with some unique encounters and challenges to provide the players, but further adds to the character of Vornheim. The House of the Medusa provides you with a villainous NPC that could be used for your city campaign. The Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng provides your players with a series of weird encounters and beasts that can be played as is or modified for a more involved plotline. Finally, there is the Library of Zorlac, a wizard’s tower of sorts that includes a group of thieves that steal books for their master.

Apparently, there is a hydra in Zorlac’s basement because, in Zak’s world, snake skin reveals mystical knowledge. Who knew? Not this guy!

I’m not going to go into any more detail as I think you should experience this book yourself. I do think this is something that you should pick up if you are an #osr guy/gal, or are into #lotfp. If you like Zak’s work, you probably already have it. If you don’t and can find the hard cover, pick it up. You can find the pdf here at DriveThruRPG.

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